Afghan first lady backs French veil ban

2014-11-01 22:32

Kabul - Afghanistan's cosmopolitan new first lady has backed France's controversial ban on the niqab, comparing the full veil to "blinders" as she prepares to campaign for more respect for women in her conservative adopted homeland.

However Rula Ghani defended the wearing of headscarves, including the hijab, in public spaces for religious reasons, saying she did not understand the dispute over their use in France.

Ghani shocked Afghan observers earlier this year when she appeared with her husband during the country's presidential campaign, a rare example of a political wife sharing the spotlight.

Now the Lebanese-American of Christian heritage is set to carve out a role for herself as the patriarchal and deeply Muslim nation's first high-profile first lady.

In an interview with AFP at the presidential palace, Ghani, who speaks five languages, reminisced about her time as a student at the prestigious Sciences Po university in Paris which she attended during the late 1960s.

Wearing a vintage Hermes scarf over her hair, she recalled in fluent French that "all the young women at Sciences Po had their headscarves which they would wear as they stepped out of school".

"When issues began to arise around the veil and hijab in France, I was a little shocked - people seem to not have a very long memory."

Wearing the full veil in public was banned by French law in 2011, igniting a fierce debate over the value of religious freedom against social cohesion.

Ghani praised the ban in France on the all-enveloping veil.

"Regarding the French law against the niqab and burqa which prevent women from being able to move freely and see, because the niqab is a bit like blinders, I am in full agreement with the government of France," Ghani told AFP.

But she said she had no problem with the headscarf, saying: "If anyone wants to wear a headscarf, or clothes that cover all the limbs, or wish to cover their ankles or their wrists... it's certainly something that has a religious motivation, but it's also something we can live with, it's not at all offensive, it shouldn't bother people."

Strong woman

Ghani is a woman of strong opinions who has already taken a far more prominent role than her predecessor, Zeenat Karzai, who was practically invisible during the 13-year rule of her husband Hamid Karzai.

Karzai came to power after a US-led coalition toppled the hardline Taliban government that banned women from leaving their homes without male guardians.

Ghani admits she is still trying to define her role, but hopes that by the end of her husband's five-year term, "men in Afghanistan will be more inclined to recognise whatever role their wives take".

"In one word, more respect," she said.

Her husband is already leading by example, praising his wife's work with internally displaced people, women and children during his 29 September inauguration speech.

By the standards of most women in Afghanistan, who are confined to domestic family roles, Ghani has had an extremely liberated, globe-trotting life.

Highly educated, with degrees from leading universities in France, Lebanon - where she met her future husband - and the United States, she spent three years in Kabul with her in-laws during the 1970s while her husband worked as a lecturer.

They left for the United States, where he was to pursue his PhD at Columbia University, and could only watch helplessly as their country was invaded by the Soviet Union.

Ghani says she benefits from her diverse background, despite being attacked by political rivals during the campaign for being a Christian.

"There are two ways of dealing with it - one is to cling on to one identity alone and the other is to embrace all of them, to try to take advantage of all of them," she said.

French connection

Ghani returned to Kabul in 2002 when her husband, then a successful World Bank economist, returned home as the country's finance minister.

Though immersed in the affairs of her adopted country, she is a self-professed Francophile who recalls vividly her time in Paris during the student uprising of 1968.

"I found it very refreshing to see people decide that there are certain things they wanted and some things they did not want. It showed some independence of mind," she said.

Her time at the university, together with two years working as a journalist for Agence France-Presse in Beirut, trained her to "think in a very logical way" she says.

At AFP her role involved monitoring Arab radio and press every morning for news related to the political upheavals of the early 1970s.

"It was great training for a journalist, because it taught you to be quick but at the same time you had to be accurate," she said.

Now aged 66, Ghani hailed the work of brave activists and female politicians for breaking new ground for women in Afghanistan despite discrimination and violence.

Given the hostility of opponents during the campaign, observers believe Ghani will be forced to strike a delicate balance in her new role -- a fact she seems keenly aware of.

"I am kind of finding my way," she said. "Listening and trying to understand what is happening in Afghanistan."

  • Piet Swart - 2014-11-01 23:56

    Very reasonable suggestions. Let's see if this lady survives.

  • Hosni Mubar - 2014-11-02 02:03

    There was bound to be a backlash against the gross chauvinism of Islam. Hopefully this will spread to all religions and regions where chauvinism is rife.

      Humeira Mogalia - 2014-11-02 08:50

      There is no chauvinism is Islam. The chauvinism comes from a cultural belief system. I am very much equal to my husband is all aspects (well except for the obvious ones). My religion teaches me to educate myself, question things and not to accept things at face value, to be my own person financially - does this sound like chauvinism...... However CULTURALLY I have to battle my male counterparts bcos CULTURALLY I am not seen as an equal. Please do not confuse the two-thanks

  • Imran Vorajee - 2014-11-02 07:59

    Why would a country ban a veil which Islam doesn't even make compulsory on women,the choice to cover the face is exactly that,YOU HAVE A CHOICE..There's more to Islam than what you read in the media,Islam is beautiful,ask the Westerners what is modesty and they can't even give you a definition of it,Really people WAKE UP

  • Sean Mitchell - 2014-11-02 07:59

    Sumaiya. Maybe you should be celebrating Rula Ghani instead of scornfully rejecting her. She joins a short, but hopefully lengthening list of women who may just help save Islam from itself. Tawakkul Karman from Yemen and Malala Yousafzai are two outstanding role models and Islam needs as many as it can get.

      Humeira Mogalia - 2014-11-02 08:44

      Sean. Islam has many role models already. Unfortunately it's people's misinterpretations (from both sides of the great divide) which creates the's unfortunate really.

      Ayesha Omar - 2014-11-02 09:18

      sean our role models is all the prophets of god we have many thanks

  • konfab - 2014-11-02 09:01

    The only real reason why Muslims wear a veil is because the religion was founded in an area where there are sandstorms. Hence covering your face protects it from high velocity sand particles. Since weather was a completely mysterious thing back then, the sandstorms must have come from God to punish those who don't wear a veil.

      Warren - 2014-11-02 09:45

      A lot of Halaal/ Kosher laws make sense: pigs and crustaceans eat and live in feces, and so have a greater opportunity to carry disease. It would make sense to ban their conumption

  • Viman Singh - 2014-11-02 09:31

    I think women should make their own choices. Some women want to cover up so its good for them.

      yazeed.isaacs.3 - 2014-11-02 10:24

      Thats right. Women have a choice in Islam. They can choose to do so or not.

  • Schalk van Schalkwyk - 2014-11-02 09:56

    A lady with big cahoonies! Remarkable to hear her talk from thatbposition and in that culture!

  • Sean Mitchell - 2014-11-02 10:37

    Women might have a theoretical choice in Islam but in many places in the Muslim world they have no choice.

      Rashid Kara - 2014-11-02 10:56

      Sean, I think I mentioned to you the customs in certain of these countries, please don't forget this??, this is what drive this people, and because they happened to be muslim, thus the stigmatization!!!!

  • Sean Mitchell - 2014-11-02 10:41

    Humeira. The women I've named are world famous and alive. 2 Nobel Peace Prizes awarded to Muslim women in 3 years should be celebrated.

      Humeira Mogalia - 2014-11-02 11:45

      I don't dispute that. I agree. I was just making a statement

  • Sean Mitchell - 2014-11-02 14:13

    Humeira. There are many people under the impression that nothing good comes from the Islamic world. That is what makes these women so valuable.

  • Rui Obed Muchenga - 2014-11-02 15:11

    Seam my question to you is who are actualy the graiters enemy of those womans you "seam " to be praising?

  • Sean Mitchell - 2014-11-02 15:21

    Rui Obed. That would be violent Islamist extremists

      Rashid Kara - 2014-11-02 17:01

      Sean, bad answer, I am disappointed in you, with your kind of intellect, don't be coerced by the illiterate, lead them!!!!

  • Sean Mitchell - 2014-11-03 11:59

    Rashid. Malala was shot in the head by a violent Islamic extremist. That was not friendly. I don't attack Islam by saying that as Malala would appear to me to be a Muslim.

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